These eleven masterful stories - the first collection from acclaimed author Jennifer Egan - deal with loneliness and longing, regret and desire. Egan's characters - models and housewives, bankers and schoolgirls - are united by their search for something outside their own realm of experience. They set out from locations as exotic as China and Bora Bora, as cosmopolitan as downtown Manhattan, or as familiar as suburban Illinois to seek their own transformations. Elegant and poignant, the stories inEmerald Cityare seamless evocations of self-discovery.
Ranging in setting from provincial China to downtown Manhattan, the 11 short stories in Egan's first collection trace characters grappling with a wide variety of backgrounds and situations. But whether portraying the ennervated atmosphere of an exotic fashion shoot in Africa (``The Stylist'') or a teen's discovery of her father's secret life (``Puerto Vallarta''), Egan's writing is even more assured and convincing than it was in her debut novel, The Invisible Circus. In the chilling ``Sacred Heart,'' about a young girl's obsessive infatuation with her school's premier self-destructive rebel, Egan manages to sustain an atmosphere charged with menace without resorting to predictable shock effects. Many of the tales concern Americans abroad, characters who are disconnected from both their present environments and from the lives they've left behind. This theme finds its most persuasive expression in the dazzling ``Why China?'' in which a troubled San Francisco financial trader encounters the con man who once cheated him out of $25,000. With remarkable economy, Egan develops an uneasy cat-and-mouse game between the two men, as well as a rare depth of characterization for such a short work. While a smattering of the tales here seem like apprentice work by comparison-the title story, for instance, which concerns a hyper-trendy photographer's assistant in Manhattan-the collection as a whole showcases Egan as a writer of admirable ambition and accomplishment. (Feb.)
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October 07, 2007
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Excerpt from Emerald City by Jennifer Egan
WHY CHINA? It was him, no question. The same guy. I spotted him from far away, some angle of his head or chin that made my stomach jump before I even realized who I was looking at. I made my way toward him around the acupuncturists, the herbal doctors slapping mustard-colored poultices on bloody wounds, and the vendors of the platform shoes and polyester bell-bottoms everyone in Kunming was mysteriously wearing. I was afraid he'd recognize me. Then it hit me that I'd still been beardless when he'd ripped me off, two years before, and my beard--according to old friends, who were uniformly staggered by the sight of me--had completely transformed (for the better, I kept waiting to hear) my appearance. We were the only two Westerners at this outdoor market, which was a long bike ride from my hotel and seedy in a way I couldn't pin down. The guy saw me coming. "Howdy," he said. "Hello," I replied. It was definitely him. I always notice eyes, and his were a funny gray-green--bright, with long lashes like little kids have. He'd been wearing a suit when I met him, and a short ponytail, which at that particular moment signified hip Wall Street. One look and you saw the life: Jeep Wrangler, brand-new skis, fledgling art collection that, if he'd had balls enough to venture beyond Fischl and Schnabel and Basquiat, might have included a piece by my wife. He'd been the sort of New Yorker we San Franciscans are slightly in awe of. Now his hair was short, unevenly cut, and he wore some kind of woven jacket. "You been here long?" I asked. "Here where?" "China." "Eight months," he said. "I work for theChina Times." I stuffed my hands in my pockets, feeling weirdly self-conscious, like I was the one with something to hide. "You working on something now?" "Drugs," he said. "I thought there weren't any over here." He leaned toward me, half smiling. "You're standing in the heroin capital of China." "No shit," I said. He rolled on the balls of his feet. I knew it was time to bid polite farewell and move on, but I stayed where I was. "You with a tour?" he finally asked. "Just my wife and kids. We're trying to get a train to Chengdu, been waiting five days." "What's the problem?" "Mei you," I said, quoting the ubiquitous Chinese term for "can't be done." But you never know what, or which factors, if changed, would make that "no" a "yes." "That's what the hotel people keep saying." "Fuck the hotel," he said. We stood a moment in silence, then he checked his watch. "Look, if you want to hang out a couple of minutes, I can probably get you those tickets," he said. He wandered off and said a few words to a lame Chinese albino crouched near a building alongside the market. China Times, I thought. Like hell. Heroin pusher was more like it. At the same time, there was an undeniable thrill in being near this guy. He was a crook--I knew it, but he had no idea I knew. I enjoyed having this over him; it almost made up for the twenty-five grand he'd conned out of me. We set off on our bicycles back toward the center of town. With Caroline and the girls I took taxis, which could mean anything from an automobile to a cart pulled by some thin, sweating guy on a bicycle. It pissed me off that the four of us couldn't ride bikes together like any other Chinese family. ("Since when are we a Chinese family, Sam?" was my wife's reply.) But the girls pleaded terror of falling off the bikes and getting crushed by the thick, clattering columns of riders, all ringing their tinny, useless bells. Secretly, I believed that what really turned my daughters off were the crummy black bikes the Chinese